Officials moving to take sting out of court costs

Original article can be found in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Written by Bob Egelko

When U.S. Justice Department officials warned state courts this week that soaring financial penalties for low-level wrongdoing might be damaging people’s lives, they could have had Mariah Robinson in mind.   
Robinson, 28, of San Francisco, lost her driver’s license for failing to pay fines and surcharges of about $4,000 on a half-dozen traffic tickets. And she said the tickets weren’t even hers, but were issued to another driver who somehow got her license information and gave it to police each time.   
She said she’s gotten some of the tickets removed from her record but her license was still suspended, something Robinson was unaware of until November, when police pulled her over for an alleged traffic violation as she was heading toward the Bay Bridge. She was ticketed then, not for a traffic violation, but for driving with an invalid license.   
“I can’t get around,” said Robinson, a single mother of four. She said she makes clothes for a living and has had to find other ways to travel to her suppliers, meet her clients and take two of her children to school. She’s also going to court to try to recover her license.   
“How is that helping anything, the fines being so high?” she asked. “Where does the money go?”   
She’s not alone.   
In April 2015, a report found that the driver’s licenses of 4.2 million Californians had been suspended because they hadn’t paid traffic tickets or the increasing surcharges attached by local courts, and that poor people were the hardest hit. The Legislature responded with an amnesty law, which reduced debts on overdue tickets issued before January 2013 and enabled more than 58,000 drivers to recover their licenses as of Dec. 31, according to the state Judicial Council.   
The amnesty law doesn’t help drivers like Robinson who have received tickets since January 2013. Newly proposed legislation would prohibit license suspensions for most traffic violations, other than drunken or reckless driving.   
California courts have imposed the fees because of budget shortages that have closed courtrooms in many counties. The surcharges are weighing heaviest on low- and middle-income Californians, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told the Legislature on March 8 in her annual State of the Judiciary speech.   
“This is an inequity when we have taken a fines, fees and assessment accountability system and turned it into a revenue-generating system for government services,” Cantil-Sakauye said.   
The nationwide scope of the problem was reflected Monday in a letter the U.S. Justice Department sent to chief judges and court administrators in every state. It said too many people are being subjected to heavy fines for minor crimes, and penalized or even jailed when they can’t pay.   
People are being “trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape,” said the letter, signed by Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice.   
Gupta and Foster warned state court officials that some of their practices may violate civil rights laws and the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process of law.   
Drivers should not have their licenses suspended simply because they can’t afford to pay traffic fines or fees, the Justice Department said. It also said drivers should not be prohibited from challenging a traffic ticket in court until the driver has paid the fine — a common practice in California before the Legislature halted it last year. And in criminal cases, the department said, people should not be jailed for failing to pay fines they can’t afford, nor should they be held in jail after arrest because they lack the funds to pay bail.   
Most state courts, including California’s, follow the practice of keeping suspected criminals in jail until they can post bail, which generally includes a nonrefundable, 10 percent payment to a bail bond company. But a series of lawsuits around the nation, including one pending in San Francisco, challenges the legality of the bail system, saying it keeps low-income people in jail awaiting trial while wealthier people charged with the same crimes can go free.   
The U.S. Justice Department has joined the challenge, arguing in court filings that keeping people locked up solely because they can’t afford to pay for their release amounts to unconstitutional discrimination as well as “bad public policy.” U.S. courts use a different system under federal law, holding defendants charged with federal crimes in jail before trial only if they pose a public danger or a risk of fleeing. 
About 60 percent of the people held in county jails nationwide have not yet been convicted of a crime, up from 50 percent 20 years ago, Foster, of the Office for Access to Justice, said in an address to the American Bar Association last month. The overwhelming majority of pretrial detainees are poor, she said.   
Cantil-Sakauye also questioned the bail system in her speech to the Legislature.   
It’s time to ask, the chief justice said, whether bail really promotes public safety, “or does it in fact penalize the poor?”